The relationship between the military and the media has always been, by turns, contentious and mutually beneficial. From the earliest days of the Civil War, for example, reporters were embedded in Northern units, writing about military campaigns, just as they were in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
In those cases — and all other wars in between — embedded journalists landed sensational scoops, took iconic photographs at great risk to themselves, and communicated the on-the-ground narrative back to the American public. And for the military’s part, journalistic access showcased transparency and a commitment to a free press.
The American understanding of the Civil War would not have been the same without the photographs of Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, and the journalism of William Howard Russell, George Wilkes, John Russell Young and Albert Richardson.
The 1944 invasion of Normandy would not have been understood the same way without the work of Robert Capa. The ghastly toll of World War II would not have been understood as well without the work of Ernie Pyle, whose “The Death of Captain Waskow” is considered the greatest newspaper column in history. That column’s counterpart, Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, is perhaps the greatest photograph in history.
The list of examples is virtually infinite. And it’s inevitably true, too, that in all U.S. wars, reporters sometimes ran afoul of military commanders, who imposed restrictions, changed the terms and sometimes expelled journalists.
Now the same old tension is cropping up again in a new American military action, the deployment of troops near the scene of the looming Russian invasion of Ukraine. Journalists, at least so far, are not included in any capacity. In fact, their requests are being blocked, according to Wednesday morning’s Reliable Sources newsletter from CNN.
But news organizations are ramping up pressure. Reliable Sources obtained a letter from the military-media brands Military.com, the Military Times, and Task & Purpose calling on the Defense Department to allow journalists to embed with U.S. troops deploying to Europe.
The three brands wrote that they “strongly believe" the public has a “right to know how and what their troops are doing and how their tax dollars are spent,” Reliable Sources reported, and they’re circulating the letter among other journalists in hopes of getting other organizations to support them.
This letter comes after the Military Reporters & Editors Association last week formally asked the Pentagon to allow journalists to embed with troops deploying to NATO’s eastern flank.
“By allowing reporters and photographers to show what life is like for U.S. troops on the ground, in the air, and at sea, the Pentagon will allow the American public to understand the responsibilities and sacrifices that both service members and their families make,” the letter stated. “It has been several years since Americans have had such an opportunity to see and hear directly from troops in the field. We at the Military Reporters & Editors Association look forward to working with you to facilitate embeds going forward.”Embeds should be a no-brainer. Not only is it vital frontline reporting on what could turn out to be the largest invasion in Europe since World War II, but it sends the right message by the military to the American public. It’s the least we can expect, considering what the U.S. spends on the military. Spending is now well over $700 billion annually. President Biden proposed $715 billion for the fiscal year 2022, and Congress approved a much higher number of $770 billion.